Colorado Music Festival offers a ‘Fantastique’ opening

Jean-Marie Zeitouni is looking forward to his return to Boulder and the CMF orchestra

By Peter Alexander


Jean-Marie Zeitouni. Photo by David Curleigh.

Boulder’s Colorado Music Festival (CMF) opens its 2016 season Thursday (7:30 p.m. June 30, Chautauqua Auditorium), and no one is more excited than music director Jean-Marie Zeitouni.

“I’ve been looking forward to this for more than 10 months,” he says. “It’s the occasion for me to connect again with the orchestra.”

Titled “Narratives of Heroism,” the concert will open with Beethoven’s Overture to Egmont and close with Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique. In between, violinist Jennifer Koh will perform a heroic feat of her own, playing the wildly virtuosic Violin Concerto of Finnish composer/conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen.

Koh was scheduled to appear at CMF in 2014, when Zeitouni first appeared at Chautauqua as a candidate for music director. An accident forced her to cancel, so she is happy to finally get to Boulder.

“I love (the Salonen Concerto),” she says. “I think it’s a great piece. I’m so excited about playing it in Boulder!”


Jennifer Koh. Photo by Jürgen Frank.

Koh is known as an adventurous violinist who commissions and plays a lot of new music—32 premieres in seven days earlier this year!—but also gives stunning performances of the standard repertoire. “I get to experience different worlds through different composers,” she says.

“It could be Tchaikovsky, it could be Bach, it could be Brahms. Or it could be Salonen! I love that about my life as a musician.”

Salonen wrote the concerto in 2009 as a farewell gift to the Los Angeles Philharmonic, where he had been conductor for 17 years. A piece that borrows from diverse traditions, the concerto opens with a propulsive movement that reconfigures Bach’s solo violin music in a contemporary idiom. Another movement features rock drumming, and the final movement, “Adieux,” is a tender farewell.

“If you love classical music, you’re going to love this piece,” Koh says. “If you love music in general, you’re going to love this piece! It’s a great ride. It’s familiar and contemporary at the same time.”


Members of the CMF Festival Orchestra

The same might be said of the Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique: it is a familiar part of the orchestral repertoire, and yet it was a very daring, contemporary piece when it premiered in 1830—only three years after Beethoven’s death.

The story behind the work is part of its appeal. It was written for an Irish actress Berlioz had seen on stage but never met. The music describes his fantasies, ending with a fevered “Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath” after the anti-hero’s execution for murder.


Harriet Smithson. Portrait by Claude-Marie Debufe

Understandably, the actress, Harriet Smithson, was somewhat alarmed by the composer’s obsession with her. Eventually they met, and she and Berlioz married in 1833, but they were never truly happy together.

That story is “very well known, but there’s much more than that,” Zeitouni says. “For the time it was written, the technique of composition and orchestration and form and poetic content—it’s an immense piece. I am looking forward to seeing what the CMF orchestra and I are able to draw out of this piece.

“I feel personally very close to it because of the French tradition.”

Other than Berlioz, there is very little of the French tradition on the summer’s orchestra programs—only the Debussy Nocturnes on one concert. There are works from the standard Viennese tradition: a Brahms symphony cycle and works by Mozart and Beethoven. There will be newer pieces and an all-Russian program. (See the whole season schedule here.)


Music Director Laureate Michael Christie

CMF Music Director Laureate Michael Christie returns for a concert July 14 (7:30 p.m., Chautauqua) with pianist Orion Weiss. Zeitouni offers his first Mahler at CMF, Das Lied von der Erde (7:30 p.m. Aug. 4 at Chautauqua) with soloists Kelly O’Connor, mezzo, and Richard Cox, tenor.

Adventurous listeners will relish The Tragedy of Carmen, a reconfiguration of Bizet’s opera for chamber orchestra and a small cast that was created by theater director Peter Brook (7:30 p.m. July 10, Chautauqua).  Brook’s version “is the pure essence of Carmen,” Zeitouni says

In addition to the events listed here, there’s a wide range of chamber programs and a contemporary music series at the Dairy Center. That’s a lot of variety, but don’t ask Zeitouni to pick his favorites. “That’s like choosing one of my children!” he laughs.

“I’m excited about everything!”

NOTE: A slightly longer version of this article will be published in Boulder Weekly July 30.

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Colorado Music Festival


Chautauqua Auditorium home of the Colorado Music Festival

Opening Night: Narratives of Heroism
Jean-Marie Zeitouni, conductor
Jenifer Koh, violin

7:30 p.m. Thursday, June 30
Chautauqua Auditorium


2016 season schedule

Composer Stephen Lias reveals his plan for a new piece for Boulder Phil

Rocky Mountain N.P. provides the inspiration for All the Songs that Nature Sings

By Peter Alexander


Stephen Lias on the porch of the William Allen White Cabin in Rocky Mountain National Park. Photos by Peter Alexander.

Composer Stephen Lias sits on the porch of the William Allen White Cabin in Rocky Mountain National Park and looks over the Moraine Park meadow.

“It feels right to me to have formed this plan, based on words by Enos Mills, read from a book in this cabin, looking at this scenery,” he says. “Everything about its connectedness to this place feels just right.”

The plan he is referring to is for a new piece that he has been commissioned to write for the Boulder Philharmonic. It will be premiered by the Boulder Phil and conductor Michael Butterman at their subscription concert March 25, 2017, and subsequently performed by them at the SHIFT Festival in the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C, March 28.


The view from the cabin: Lias in front of the Moraine Park meadow

Lias has just spent nearly two weeks in the cabin, which is reserved by the park for artists in residence. Although he was not technically an artist in residence this year, as he was in 2010, the cabin was unoccupied for a few days in early June, and the park invited Lias to stay there while preparing his piece for the Boulder Philharmonic.

Known as an adventurer/composer, Lias has written a number of pieces portraying his experiences in national parks. In 2014, the Boulder Phil opened their season with his Gates of the Arctic, conceived during a National Parks Residency in Alaska’s Gates of the Arctic National Park. It was performed with synchronized images from the park, as will be the piece to be premiered in March.

The Boulder Phil won a National Endowment for the Arts grant to support their participation in the 2017 SHIFT Festival. They chose Lias for the commission because the theme of their participation in the festival is the orchestra’s ongoing celebration of music and nature.

The title of Lias’s new piece will be All the Songs that Nature Sings, which comes from a book by Enos Mills, The Rocky Mountain National Park, that Lias found on the shelves of the William Allen White Cabin. Sometimes called “The Father of Rocky Mountain National Park,” Mills was a naturalist and nature writer in the early years of the 20th century who championed the establishment of the park.

The title “is a beautiful quote in Mills’s book,” Lias says. “He’s talking about how the trails take us to all of these amazing places and scenes and wildlife and it has at its heart ‘all the songs that nature sings.’”

Lias has only written a few musical ideas at this point, but he has formed an overall design for the piece in his mind. Based on visual images taken in the park, the plan is virtually cinematic in nature. “Imagine a camera starting with something small and intimate in nature and then slowly zooming outward, bit by bit until you can see a rock, and then a bush, and then a tree, and then a river, and then a waterfall, and then a mountain, and then a range of mountains,” he explains.

“When we can see this amazing place, the range of mountains that sits here in this park, that will be the climax of the piece, and then it will start panning back in again, zooming slowly, slowly, slowly until we end the piece with another intimate shot of some very small thing. So it’s going to be a slow growth outward, and then a slow growth back inward.”

That visual plan grew out of Lias’s poring through photos of the park. “We knew from the beginning that this commission involved a composition that would have synchronized images with it,” he says.


Lias working in the William Allen White Cabin in Rocky Mountain National Park

“Back in January I came up to the park and met with the staff and we talked about the imagery that might be used. The park gave me a hard drive of 700 and some images that we had culled from their archives, and so in addition to thinking about what I wanted the musical shape to be, I’ve known that there needed to be visual material.”

With the inspiration strong and the plan firmly in mind, Lias packs up his bags to get on with the rest of his summer plans—including leading a workshop on “Composing in the Wilderness” in Alaska. But none of that, he says, will get in the way of a piece firmly rooted in Rocky Mountain National Park.

“The very beginning notes of the piece have been written here in this cabin,” Lias says. “It will take me many months to complete, but it will still be deeply grounded to this place.”

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Information and tickets for the Boulder Philharmonic’s 2016–17 season may be found here.

Renowned composer Jake Heggie is working on his newest opera in Boulder

“It’s a Wonderful Life” at the CU New Opera Workshop

By Peter Alexander

It’s a wonderful life for composer Jake Heggie right now.


Left to Right: Libretist Gene Scheer; Leonard Foglia, Houston Grand Opera; composer Jake Heggie; and Bradley Moore, Houston Grand Opera. Photo by Alexandria Ortega for CU Presents.

As the composer of two highly successful operas, Dead Man Walking (2000) and Moby Dick (2010), he finds that commissions for his works keep coming.

“People keep asking me,” he says. “A commission is a huge gift.”

Now he is in Boulder to work on his latest opera, based on Frank Capra’s beloved 1946 film It’s a Wonderful Life. Joining him for work at the CU New Opera Workshop, (CU NOW) are librettist Gene Scheer and staff from the Houston Grand Opera, where the finished opera will have its premiere in December.

Under Leigh Holman, director of CU’s Eklund Opera Program, CU NOW offers composers the opportunity to workshop new operas prior to their first productions. For more than two weeks, they can try out their new works with CU student singers and other support staff, seeing what works and what doesn’t, making changes as they go.

After 18 days of intensive work, CU NOW will present performances of selected scenes from It’s a Wonderful Life at 7:30 p.m. Friday, June 17, and 2 p.m. Sunday, June 19, in the ATLAS Black Box Theater. Between those two performances, CU NOW will also present scenes by CU student composers at 7:30 p.m. Saturday (June 18) in the Imig Music Theatre. All three performances are free and open to the public.

Read more in Boulder Weekly.

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CU New Opera Workshop (CU NOW)


Rehearsal of “It’s a Wonderful Life” at CU NOW. Photo by Peter Alexander.

Workshop: It’s a Wonderful Life by
Jake Heggie
Libretto by Gene Scheer

7:30 p.m. Friday, June 17
2 p.m. Sunday, June 19
ATLAS Black Box Theater, CU Roser ATLAS Building

Composers Fellows’ Initiative
Performances of student opera compositions

7:30 p.m. Saturday, June 18
Music Theatre, CU Imig Music Building

Performances are free and open to the public



Kansans celebrate the environment and culture of the tallgrass prairie

‘Symphony in the Flint Hills’ is unlike any other classical music event you will find

By Peter Alexander


Symphony in the Flint Hills event site from the parking area (all photos by Peter Alexander)

The temperature crept into the low 90s and the swelling crowd kept pouring onto a remote hilltop on the Kansas prairie. Eventually there would be about 7,000 people there, more than twice the population of the county. Tents had been set up, Bar-B-Q was served, there were lectures and prairie walks and covered-wagon rides.

Near the end of the day, cowboys drove a line of cattle across the hillside while the Kansas City Symphony broke into the theme from “The Magnificent Seven.”

It was the 11th “Symphony in the Flint Hills,” held last Saturday (June 11) in South Clements Pasture, about seven miles west of the tiny town of Bazaar, KS (pop. 81). An exuberant celebration of the tallgrass prairie, of all aspects of this unique environment, of Kansas ranching culture, of Kansas itself, the event culminated with a concert by the Kansas City Symphony.


Symphony in the Flint Hills audience

If you have never attended an outdoor symphony concert on the prairie with 7,000 other people, you should put “Symphony in the Flint Hills” in next year’s calendar: June 10, 2017, at Deer Horn Ranch. (It is moved every year to give the environment time to recover.) You will never find another classical music event quite like it.

“Symphony in the Flint Hills” is first of all about the environment. The Flint Hills represent a unique ecosystem that has remained tallgrass prairie, largely as it was when the first European settlers entered Kansas. Because the rocky, flinty ground was resistant to the plow, it was never tamed by agriculture, as so much of the American prairie has been.


Flint Hills vista from the concert site

Every year, there is a theme that is explored in the lectures and talks. This year’s theme was “The Future of the Flint Hills,” something worth pondering in a time of environmental challenges and global climate changes.

(The Kansas City Symphony contributed its own happy note to thoughts of the future: the orchestra has just agreed to a new four-year deal with its musicians. In contrast to some other orchestras, the KCS negotiated the new contract without drama. It took only eight meetings, with no attorneys present.)

SFH programWhile celebrating the environment, the annual event has always featured a concert by the Kansas City Symphony as one of its highlights. (You may read more about the event and its history here.) The concert draws the largest portion of the audience and offers a attractive blend of light classics, familiar movie themes, and more serious works that fit the locale. As conductor Aram Demirjian put it, it’s “a really fun mix of music that you know and music that you’re going to be glad that you know once you’ve heard it.”

The details of that “fun mix” are never announced in advance, but this year it included music from the films Lincoln, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Magnificent Seven and Dances with Wolves. (See the full program, left.) There were lush arrangements by Carmen Dragon of “Shenandoah” and “America the Beautiful.”


Baas-bariton Dashon Burton and the Kansas City Symphony

Most fittingly, the orchestra played “Prairie Morning” and “Round-up” from Ellie Siegmeister’s Western Suite—an attractive and accessible work from 1945 that is doubtless one of those pieces you’d be glad you know once you’ve heard it. Bass-baritone Dashon Burton, a founding member of the adventurous vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth, gave deeply moving and sonorous performances of six of Aaron Copland’s Old American Songs and was rewarded with cheers from the crowd.

I will not write a full review of the concert, because what I heard was not the orchestra itself, but the sound of the orchestra through the very large speakers mounted either side of the stage. The speakers are very high quality, and the sound engineering was very solid, but some details inevitably got lost. Some passages of fast repeated notes seemed slightly blurred, and in other places the wash of sound—being broadcast out to 7,000 people, after all!—covered differences of timbre among the instruments.


Prairie sunset, audience and symphony, ready to sing “Home on the Range”

As well as I could tell, the orchestra was very tight, the solo parts all very well played. The top trumpet soloist happily lasted the entire concert, which featured exposed high passages in nearly all the film-music selections, with no audible evidence of fatigue. Demirjian led propulsive, exciting performances.

The concert ended, as it always does, with everyone standing to sing along on the Kansas State Song, “Home on the Range.” People joined arms and swayed to the music. This was a communal event of deep significance to the audience, as 7,000 people were brought together by the music, the beautiful vistas, the words of the song. It was a lovely way to end a day on the prairie.

And the skies were not cloudy all day.

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You may see all of my photos of the 2016 Symphony in the Flint Hills on my Flickr site.


Once a year on the prairie

Symphony in the Flint Hills joins conservation with symphonic music